CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte Independence announced Tuesday the return of defenders Bilal Duckett and Henry Kalungi, along with midfielder Yann Ekra to the 2017 roster. All three players will continue with the Independence having previously signed multi-year contracts.
“Anytime that you go through an offseason period, the more people you can bring back, the better,” Duckett said. “Especially coming off as strong of a season as we did, we felt like we laid a good foundation for the team moving forward.”
Duckett, team captain for the Independence, posted the most minutes on the team for the 2016 season, with 2577 minutes played in 29 out of the 30 regular season games.
“Bilal is a guy that has done a good job as a captain; both in managing the group to help indoctrinate new players as to how we do things as a team, but also in helping to keep the mentality of the group positive,” Charlotte Independence Head Coach Mike Jeffries said.
The return of both Duckett and Kalungi will bring back half of the Independence starting defense that saw the sixth lowest goals against in the USL Eastern Conference, allowing an average of less than one goal per game last season.
“We had a very good and strong defense last year, all the guys wanted to fight for the team and make sure we got the results we needed.” Kalungi said. “To have almost the entire backline return is good because we already know each other and we can continue building to get better from the beginning of the season.”
Jeffries says it is not only Kalungi’s play as a defensive presence that makes him an asset, but the overall mentality he brings to the team.
“Henry is in some ways the emotional leader of the group. He’s a guy with tremendous experience and tremendous passion,” Jeffries said. “Every day in training and during games he’s the Independence’s glue. He’s passionate not only about the team, but the franchise and he has a desire to win and that shows up.”
For Kalungi, being surrounded by that family environment creates the true success of the team.
“To me family goes beyond just the people I am born with or related to; family to me is about the people that can change your life in other ways,” Kalungi said. “So for our team, not only the players, but all the people in the organization, make up our family because we fight everyday together to achieve a goal together.”
The 2017 season with be the third season with the Independence for Duckett, Kalungi and Ekra, but for Ekra, who spent parts of the 2016 season injured, it will be a fresh start.
“Last season was very frustrating, I had a lot of injuries from the beginning [of the season] and I was trying to fight to come back maybe too early, but I can put last season behind me and try to do better and be healthy for next season,” Ekra said.
While the injuries plagued Ekra last season, Jeffries is looking forward to him turning the page for the 2017 season.
“I look forward to having him at 100% because I think that he’s a guy that can change the dynamic of this team,” Jeffries said. “He has so much quality on the ball and athletic ability that he can make a big impact player for us.”
For all three players, though, their return is more than just about the game.
“We all defined and bought into a team identity. It’s great to do that for one season, but it’s even better to carry that on for season to come,” Duckett said. “We want this to be Charlotte’s team. We have a group of guys who are committed to being a part of the city and not just playing in it.”